Friday, December 24, 2010

My Childhood Christmas in Sweden, Part 3

Merry Christmas from all of us, woof, woof!

Soldier and me, Christmas 2008

In Sweden most of the Christmas celebrations take place on Christmas Eve.  I still remember how thrilling it was to wake up on the morning of Christmas Eve, full of delight and anticipation. On the dark and cold morning the tree with its pretty ornaments, the candles and the star on top always took my breath away. When my brother and I were small, there would be just a present or two under the tree. We would get one or two that morning to keep us quiet and occupied until the evening when Santa, in the form of our Grandfather, would come walking through the snow carrying a large burlap sack full of presents.

As I said in an earlier post on this subject, I don't have any photos of Christmas in my childhood home. I hope I can describe the sights, sounds, and particularly the smells of a Christmas in a Swedish home, somewhere in the late 1940s, early 1950s.

In the kitchen of my childhood home, it was a busy time preparing for lunch and the big Christmas dinner later in the day. While the Christmas ham simmered in a big pot, various meats were added. After the ham and the added ingredients cooked for a long time, something wonderful happened in the pot: A spicy broth, thick and juicy, was getting ready for the traditional dipping in the pot, dopp i grytan, ceremony. After my mother removed the ham and rubbed it with brown sugar and mustard and studded it with cloves, she put it in the oven to glaze. Then the family gathered around the pot to dip bread in the hot broth. I remember thick slices of rye bread, I believe. It was a wonderful tradition and one that I miss. I read somewhere that this ceremony originated in pagan times when the Vikings would sacrifice to the sun by fasting around the winter solstice. For them fasting meant not eating meat, so instead they would dip bread in broth while waiting for the sun's return to their cold and dark land.

If our family hosted Christmas Eve for our grandparents and other family members, they would arrive in the afternoon. By now we, the children, would be beside ourselves with excitement and curiosity about our presents. Oh, what could it be, will I get what I really want and so on. When we were older we would look at the presents under the tree and, reading the poems that hinted at their contents, we would try to figure out what was inside.

Home made glogg, was served throughout the day. Glogg is the Swedish Christmas drink for me. It smells heavenly and tastes out of this world too. But I think it's the smell that does it for me. There is nothing like it. Made from a sweet and a dry red wine, with orange rind, raisins and spices, it's heated and when hot, vodka, or some such alcohol, is poured in and put on fire. While it's burning, you dip sugar cubes in a strainer through the fire into the wine, creating a wonderful taste and smell. It's something special for sure.

Dinner started with the traditional smorgasbord. I'm sure all of you are familiar with a smorgasbord, which actually translates to a sandwich table, but of course, that's not what it is at all. Here are some of the dishes I remember:
  • Herring, marinated in several different    ways.
  • Swedish meatballs.
  • Swedish anjovis.
  • Rullsylta – a rolled cold meat dish.
  • And several dishes that I now cannot imagine eating, such as pickled pigs feet and ox tongue. 

Many, many more dishes that I can't remember now were also served.

Eating was frequently interrupted by a toast of aquavit, brannvin, which involves the following ceremony:

You raise your glass, look the person you are toasting in the eye and say: Skoal! Everyone then replies: Skoal! Then you drink the shot glass of this strong alcohol, followed by some of the Christmas ale to wash it down.

After several of these toasts, I'm sure the lye fish, lutfish, that followed was more palatable.

You also drink the traditional Christmas ale throughout the meal. I wonder now how tipsy the adults were by the end of the day. What with the glogg and all.

After the fish, it was time for the wonderful Christmas ham and after that the rice porridge, risgrynsgroten. There are a couple of traditions involved with this porridge as well. A lone almond is placed in the porridge and if a single person gets the almond in their bowl, it's said that he or she will get married in the following year. If it lands in a bowl of a married person, he or she will prosper in the year to come. And, finally, in the olden days, a plate of porridge was placed in the barn for the little gnome, tomten, who was thought to live there.  

After this seemingly endless meal (to us kids) it was time for the presents. As I said above, my grandfather was Santa when we were small. He would trudge through the snow, up the steps, and knock on our front door with a question: Finns det nagra snalla barn har? ("Are there any good/nice children here?") You were supposed to be good and nice in order to get your gifts from Santa, so of course we yelled: "Yes!" And then we had to wait for my dad to read the poem on each gift before we could proceed to rip off the red sealing wax and open our presents.

I believe the evening ended with coffee and cakes and a glass of the Christmas punch, not an American kind of punch, but something else, in a bottle. A very 19th century drink that evokes smoky libraries where the gentlemen would withdraw after dinner to drink their punch and smoke their cigars. That's about all I can think of to describe it.

All through the day we would sing the Christmas songs. Nu ar det jul igen, I remember as the most fun of them all. In some families, but not in ours, there would be the traditional dance around the Christmas tree and throughout the house. In the Ingmar Bergman film, Fanny and Alexander, there is a wonderful part that shows a traditional Swedish Christmas at the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century. In the movie, the fun deteriorated toward the end of the evening, probably a result of all those Christmas drinks.

It's interesting to me that the Swedes, these most modern of people, are so steeped in traditions this time of year. I also find it interesting that many of the traditions are not Christian at all. Some stem from the darkness around the winter solstice and were begun in pagan times, by Vikings and others who had to endure the cold and dark. They needed something to cheer them up and give them hope that the sun, light and warmth would soon return. Other traditions had to do with treating the small people, the elves and gnomes that protected you during the year, to a nice meal of rice porridge in the stable or barn. I don't know where the glogg originated; it probably just came about to keep people warm and happy during this cold and dark time of the year.

There will actually be a Part 4 to this. When one or two of the readers of my blog asked me to describe our Swedish Christmas traditions, I had no idea there would be so much to write about. The traditions are many; they are rich and interesting, so I will go on after Christmas and tell the story of the Christmas morning church service, julottan, and how we kids enjoyed the parties at each other's homes when we set out to plunder the Christmas tree, julgrans plundring, in the new year.

Have a wonderful Holiday Season and Thank You for your support of my blog this past year. You have helped me so much and it has been great to get to know you. More about that later.....


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